Music at the Tower: Bach for Good

Bach for Good
Music at the Tower
St Mary’s Tower, Hornsey
21 August 2021

Music at the Tower was founded in the summer of 2020 by soprano Mary Bevan MBE and cellist Jonny Byers to provide much needed employment for freelance musicians in and around London whose livelihoods had evaporated during the Covid-19 pandemic. During the summer of 2020, they employed 128 musicians and other performers in a total of 11 outdoor performances at St Mary’s Tower in Hornsey. Their most recent project was the free Bach for Good festival of Baroque music, held on Saturday 21 August at St Mary’s Tower.

The day-long festival started at 2pm and continued well into the evening, ending with a “country, western, swing & honky tonk” band. The main focus of the music events were three orchestral concerts featuring all the Brandenburg Concertos. They took place beneath a couple of tent covers in front of the surviving medieval tower of the former St Mary’s church, the rest of which has long since gone. The covers were needed dring the first concert which saw the last remnants of the rain that had threatened the afternoon pass by.

In between the orchestral concerts were chamber music events on a woodland stage in the far corner of the old churchyard. These featured the eleven recipients of the ‘Award for Students of Historical Performance’, drawn from final year students of London music colleges – Tom Dewey & Dominika Maszczynska, harpsichord, Samuel Ng, cello, Olivia Petryszak & Teresa Wrann, recorders, Angelika Stangl & Andrés Villalobos, oboes, Karen Wong, flute, Danny Murphy, lute/theorbo, Camilla Seale, mezzo, and Thomas Kettle, viola. This award was arranged and funded by the Continuo Foundation (more information here). They also joined the professional musicians in the orchestral performances.

The Continuo Foundation Award musicians appeared in a variety of groupings in the woodland stage, including the pictured format of two recorders (Olivia Petryszak & Teresa Wrann) and continuo (Dominika Maszczynska, harpsichord, Samuel Ng, cello, and Danny Murphy, theorbo) who played Uccellini’s Aria sopra la Bergamasca. Mezzo Camilla Seale followed with an aria from the Johannes Passion which led into Palestrina from a small choir of professional singers and a lively performance of Michel Corrette’s Concerto Comique: Le Quadrille with flautist Karen Wong.

A later woodland chamber concert also feature Karen Wond playing the Allegro from Bach’s Flute Sonata in e. This elicited a delightful response from a young lady who had sat for some time entranced by music from Merula and Bach before getting up for a little dance. This is what music should be all about. Her Mum later said that she now wants to learn an insrtument. If the afternoon of music achieve nothing else, this one moment would have been worth it.

The first of the orchestral concerts opened with the first chorus from Bach’s Wachet Auf cantata, and closed with the final choral, which then became the focus of two choral workshops later in the afternoon. The rythmic energy of Bach’s opening chorus carried on into the first Brandenburg Concerto, which featured particuarly fine playing from the horn players Ursula Paludan Monberg & Martin Lawrence and oboists Leo Duarte, Angelika Stangl & Andrés Villalobos, the former in the anarchic horn interjections in the first movement, and all five in the Menuet.

The second orchestral concert opened with Brandenburg 5, with its notorious harpsichord solos, brilliantly played by Peter Whelan (*correction – originally noted as Tom Dewey), whose interpretion demonstated the difference between playing the notes and playing the music. Unfortunatle the sound system which had hitherto worked well had a wobble so the harpsichord sound was rather difficult to hear, at least from where I was sitting. But Peter got by far the loudest applause of the whole day for his playing. Jonny Byers and Sam Ng were soloists in Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Cellos in g. The musicians were led by violinist Huw Daniel.

Meanwhile, on top of the St Mary’s Tower, Dame Emma Kirkby treated those who managed the tricky climb up the ancient stairs to three short recitals of Dowland with Danny Murphy, lute. Dame Emma later descended to join Mary Bevan MBE in the woodland area for the closest we got to a musical aristocracy. They sang duets which seemed to be principally about misery.

I wasn’t able to stay for the evening sessions. They included the third orchestral concert (which finished with the audience chorus of Wachet auf) and the rest of the woodland chamber music. The playing throughout the day was impressive. The festival was very well organised and drew and enthusiastic a large crowd. They were joined by several people passing through the public paths in the churchyard. Music at the Tower is still in need of financial help towards the costs of the day.